Thursday, February 25, 2016

"To own" (English-to-Russian translation competition)

Вот цитата из американской газеты: “People are confused why Bernie Sanders won’t own his Jewishness.” Смысл в том, что кандидат в президенты США не говорит открыто о своих еврейских корнях.

Меня интересует перевод на русский глагола "own" в данном случае. Имеется в виду "брать ответственность за" или же "признать".

Ответы в комментах. Жду!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Myths and realities of language learning (Or: Life after fossilisation)

I have just read yet another advert for online English tuition, promising the sofa-ridden sloth fluent native-speaker English in exchange for zero effort. Don't believe a word of it! 

When it comes to foreign languages, I feel I have a right to an opinion. Brought up in Belgium in the 1980s and attending an international school, I went on to study languages at university and during the course of theological training and have since tried my hand at a few more languages. The current language count is 13 (including English). By no means am I proficient at all of these, but I do have some experience of language learning. I have also interacted with a sufficient number of people over the years to make the following observation. Very few people, if anyone, manages to achieve native speaker level knowledge of a foreign language not acquired from infancy and from a parent. I can recall one case, a friend of a friend, who I didn't realise was not a native speaker of English for several hours (Sophie is a Flemish native translator/interpreter with an English-speaking husband). I would love to say that I have native speaker level Russian, but I blatantly don't and that goal remains a long-term aspiration.

So is all lost? Is language learning basically impossible or at least so difficult that progress is minimal? No, I don't think so. Just as the goal of native speaker mastery is elusive, so experience also demonstrates that 1-2 years exposure to a language in a full-immersion environment is usually sufficient for anyone - trained/gifted or not - to acquire operational fluency in a language. Even in cases where such full immersion is not available, this can be compensated to some extent by various factors, including motivation, language learning skill and learning methods. I have seen plenty of people go from being unable to communicate to being able to converse and function using a foreign language which they have acquired as adults.

What sort of things help? Well, second language acquisition can be broken down into two broad phases. 

Phase one is the initial acquisition of the language. This can proceed quite rapidly and every bit of progress yields significant gains. There are the first few words in a language (simply naming things), including perhaps numbers. Then simple sentences, even better if these open the door to introducing oneself or performing a function such as asking for things. Then things get going as the learner starts to construct new and more complex sentences and expands their vocabulary. Opportunities to use the new language reinforce learning and bolster confidence. And so on. Until you reach a stage which is called fossilisation. Fossilisation in language learning is basically a learning plateau, at which point the learner stops making progress (even while continuing to make an effort) and various mistakes (for example wrongly remembered words, omitted inflections, mispronounced letters) are perpetuated.

There is life after fossilisation (phase two)! As with many things in life, half the battle is to diagnose the problem. If you are experiencing fossilisation you are not alone! There are many excellent treatments of this topic online by people much more qualified than me, but let me share some things which can help you move onwards and upwards in language learning. The benefits of full immersion are obvious and well-known. It is recommended that merely 'hammering away' at language learning is less effective than varying techniques. Exercises and word games are great as they facilitate memorising answers. However, let me emphasise four approaches which I think yield particular benefits.

1. Only make mistakes once. One of the problems with fossilisation is that my approximation of the language which I am learning ('interlanguage' in the jargon) becomes fossilised, impervious to change. You need to break out of that and open up the possibility of correction and change. If you make a mistake or if you find yourself unable to think of a word or express what you want to say, make sure you remedy this so that next time you do know.

2. Get feedback. Related to this is having some mechanism for feedback, that is someone (or possibly something, eg who lets you know what you got wrong and tells you the right answer. This might be a friend who agrees to help you out or a teacher who doesn't let you 'get away with' poor language for the sake of your confidence. However you do it, this sort of 'stickler' (as someone has called them) is invaluable.

3. Listen to yourself. Yes, I know your voice sounds awful when recorded, but get over it. Listen to yourself speaking your foreign language and identify what you get wrong so that you can correct yourself.

4. Find opportunities to express yourself, composing texts in your foreign language. This particularly relates to written language, but it could potentially be in oral form too. This exercise enables you to learn how to use language the way native speakers do. It can be helpful to start with material in your own language and translate, but bear in mind that 'translation' in this case means 'retelling' rather than simply word-by-word translation. If this exercise can be combined with some usefulness all the better. In my case I was asked to research and teach a subject (church history). For the sake of the students I wrote up all my lectures in handout form and the resulting notes amount to about 700 pages of A4. For the purposes of language learning it was this process which has taught me (or better is teaching me) to present information and formulate thought and reasoning in a Russian way.

Good luck with your language learning!